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How Does Nutrition Affect Maternal Breast Milk in Humans?

by Anita Holmes

Nursing mothers are often deluged with advice: don't eat onions -- babies hate the taste, avoid chocolate -- it'll constipate newborns, drink fluids like mad and dodge stressful situations as they'll diminish supply. Where does the truth lie? Does what a nursing mother ingests play a role in breast milk production or quality? While the old adage "you are what you eat" is to a certain extent true, women's bodies are programmed to pass on to nursing babies the best of what the mother's body can produce, even when her nutritional intake is marginal. However, there are certain nutritional considerations that can affect maternal breast milk in humans.

Consequence: Caloric Considerations

One of the bonuses of choosing to nurse your baby is weight loss. A nursing mother burns extra calories over the course of regularly providing milk for her baby. In fact, the Mayo Clinic website recommends eating 400 to 500 calories more per day than normal. The clinic advises that whole-grain breads, high-protein foods and fruits are nutritionally desirable additions to a balanced diet. However, should a mother not be able to meet her own caloric dietary needs, while her body will continue to produce milk for her baby, her immune system may be compromised. She may become more susceptible to becoming ill, lacking energy and feeling run down.

Consequence: Food Choices

Different foods will change the flavor of breast milk. Also, depending on the nutritional value of the mother's daily diet, they will either keep her healthy or undermine her own health, while still producing nutritional milk for baby. The good news is, nursing mothers can feel free to eat onions and chocolate along with a balance of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meat and dairy products. In some cases, a baby may experience gas or digestion problems due to his mother consuming certain foods, so it's beneficial to the baby for his mom to keep track of what might be bothersome. For instance, broccoli may produce gas while cow's milk sometimes creates constipation, and the mother will need to avoid those foods. Exposing baby to breast milk with slightly different flavors helps prepare him to accept a variety of different-tasting solid foods. The bad news is, while a mother's body will continue to put out the best milk possible for her baby, her health can be at risk if she is not eating a balanced diet.

Consequence: Inappropriate and Inadequate Liquids

Hydration is important for nursing mothers. Dark yellow urine is a sure sign that the mother needs to be drinking more fluids. Moderate dehydration may not affect breast milk, but it can cause headaches, dry skin and constipation in nursing mothers. Severe dehydration will diminish milk production. Water is nutritionally desirable over sugary drinks or juices. Too much caffeine can cause agitation in a nursing baby and interfere with her sleep patterns. Nursing mothers should avoid alcoholic intake of more than one drink per day, as alcohol passes easily into human milk and can cause abnormal weight gain in infants.

Consequence: Inadequate Diet Overall

UNICEF, an organization dedicated to working with mothers and children in third-world countries, reports that mothers suffering from moderate malnutrition can still effectively breastfeed. While the woman may feel the repercussions of inadequate diet in terms of hunger, lack of energy and a higher susceptibility to disease, her body will still produce as much milk -- or nearly as much milk -- for her little one as a mother enjoying a nutritional diet. Severely malnourished mothers, however, will find their milk supply dwindling.

About the Author

A retired teacher, Anita Holmes is an experienced seamstress, wood worker and home decor specialist. She's designed and constructed new homes, gardens, remodeled multiple homes, built furniture, decks and cabinets and sewn everything from custom drapes to intricate quilts. Holmes holds a Master of Public Administration degree.

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